Hopetoun House Nature Trail

Hopetoun House Preservation Trust, Estates Office, South Queensferry, West Lothian, EH30 9SL

On unclassified road 1 mile north of A904 2 miles west of Forth Road Bridge approach roundabout Map reference: NT089

2-mile trail in wooded and estuary shore grounds of 18th-century mansion-fallow deer and rare black St Kilda sheep

Illustrated trail brochure; free park ranger guide service; house to tour (William Bruce and Adam family); wildlife exhibition; museum; picnic areas; restaurant/gift shop

Set like a precious stone in acres of parkland on the shores of the Firth of Forth, is the exquisite symmetry of Hopetoun House. Architecturally, it is one of the finest Adam mansions in Britain. Designed in 1699 by Sir William Bruce (the architect of Holyrood Palace Edinburgh), it was enlarged twenty-two years later by William Adam with the help of his two brilliant sons, John and Robert.

It was to be William Adam’s last commission, for he died without seeing Hopctoun completed; but it was also his most outstanding, and it is this house that is represented on his tomb in Greyfriars churchyard.

Hopetoun has been the ancestral home of the Hope family since the first brick was laid, although in 1974 they formed a preservation

trust to own the house and its valuable contents, and now live there as tenants. The interior is rich indeed, with walls lined in yellow silk brocade, gilded tables and priceless collections of books, china and costumes.

Most treasured of all is a stunning gallery of oil paintings by great masters such as Canalet-to, Vandyke, Rubens and Titian. It was the 4th Earl of Hopetoun who bought most of the important canvases of the collection during his travels, in Genoa and London. Years later his direct descendant, the 7th Earl was created 1st Marquess of Linlithgow, the title which is used today.

Through the windows of the house are views of the Firth of Forth, spanned by a cantilevered railway bridge and a 2000-yard-long suspension road bridge. Immediately outside are straight, broad drives, sweeps of immaculate lawns and avenues of trees.

To the west of the house is yet another reason for spending a day at Hopetoun. A two-mile nature trail discovers another facet of this beautiful estate where creatures ranging from the majestic peacock to a humble wood-ant and myriads of other insects may be seen.

Visitors are invited to walk the trail in the company of one of the estate’s rangers, a guided tour available from l-6pm which is included in the admission price to the grounds. Many will prefer to take their time and spend longer than the estimated two to two-and-a-half hours.

Much of the trail skirts North Deer Park, twenty-five acres of rough grassland studded with beech, lime and oak trees. A sizeable herd of Britain’s largest wild animal, the red deer, grazes here. Unlike these be-antlered bucks, the fallow deer of the south park are not natives of the country. They were probably brought across from Asia Minor by the Romans for hunting and to decorate their estates.

A wide variety of tree species gives a con-stantly changing pattern of shapes, fruits and flowers throughout the year – and a riot of colour in the autumn. Sugar maples from North America produce rich red leaves normally, whjch become pink-red in spring on shoots grafted onto sycamore stocks. There are several of these bizarre hybrid trees in the park, with the upper leaves different from the ones growing below. Aptly-named snowberry has dainty pink flowers which are followed by round milk-white berries, and in May the mighty horse chestnuts are aglow with candles of white or pink blossom. At least one Hopetoun yew is over 400 years old, and although like most coniferous varieties, it never changes its cloak of bottle green, it does produce a bright scarlet seed collar.

Hopetoun estate stretches to the shores of the Firth of Forth and from one point along the

trail there is a good view of the bridges and Fife and the Clackmannan coast and hills beyond. Super tankers penetrate the Firth as far as the manmade island, Hound Point oil terminal, to load crude oil from the offshore Forties field. The shore is a poor mixture of saltmarsh, sand, rocks and mudflats and supports little life apart from sandhoppers and scuttling shore crabs. It is always populated by crowds of oyster-catchers, gulls, ducks and terns, and consequently strewn with the empty shells of cockles, mussels and whelks where they have fed.

Draining into the Firth from the estate is Cornie Burn – geologically a meltwater channel from the last Ice Age. Its fertile valley has been planted with trees and shrubs chosen for their colour and fragrance, among them flowering currant, sweet briar, box and lilac, while below are foxgloves, autumn crocus, cowslips and wood forget-me-not.

Throughout the walk there are reminders that this is part of a garden in which the Hope family have played and relaxed for centuries. They brought with them a stone eagle from Craighall, Ceres, Fife, their former home, and rescued three cannon from the Napoleonic Wars. In the woods are eleven headstones in memory of the family’s pet dogs. In common with other affluent landowners of the 18th century, the Hopes had a fashionable ha-ha built. This retaining wall ensured an uninterrupted view of the parkland, while keeping the deer and less welcome animals at bay.

The last section of the nature trail passes groups of pea- and guinea-fowl. The peacock is resplendent with his fan of turquoise tail feath-ers, while his harem have tails which are dull brown. Like the fallow deer, these birds were probably brought to Britain by the Romans for decoration, although they proved a tasty feast for royalty in the Middle Ages. Less common occupants of Hopetoun’s grasslands are a flock of St Kilda sheep which have thick black coats and four horns.

Queensferry South has been the crossing point for the Firth of Forth since ancient times, when a ferry plied between Hawes Pier and Hawes Inn. This 17th-century hostelry was described by Scott in and by Robert Louis Stevenson in Queen Margaret of Scotland gave her name to Queensferry as she was a frequent ferry passenger. While her husband fought at the Battle of Flodden, she kept vigil in a tiny turret of Linlithgow Palace.

Mary, Queen of Scots was born here in 1542 and the fine building also had associations with Prince Charles Edward, George V and Oliver Cromwell. Now ruined, the palace is still notable for its quadrangle, chapel and great hall. An ornate fountain, a wedding present from James V to Mary of Guise, is said to have run with wine.

The House of The Binns is the historic home of the Dalyells which was converted from a fortress to an elegant home. One colourful son was General Tarn Dalyell who raised the Royal Scots Greys here in 1681. Even today, members of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (successors to the Royal Scots Greys) are admitted to the house free of charge if they are in uniform.

Because of industrial pollution, the Forth is a fruitless river to fish, although experts have bagged salmon. Likewise its tributaries are dis-appointing in their lower reaches, although trout abound in the Almond at the Almondell and Calderwood Country Park. Here, 220 acres of woodland, rich in plant and wildlife provide a country playground for the industrial towns nearby. Even the rare and persecuted otter can be seen, most frequently at twilight.

Golfing enthusiasts are spoilt with a plethora of courses around Edinburgh. On Hopetoun’s side are Royal Burgess and Bruntisfield Links, which overlook the Forth, and Turn-house and Ratho Park.